Your Brain on Computers: Some Notes on Twitter as an Open Research Community
When discussing online social networking in some academic settings, it is easy to find negative opinions. I really liked Cathy Davidson's engagement with the New York Times piece on "digital distraction", precisely because it resists this tendency, debunking common assumptions and proposing more serious approaches to dealing with the influence of digital media in our everyday lives and especially our learning processes.
Having finally finished my PhD dissertation, I thought I owed my Twitter timeline an acknowledgement. Without my Twitter account, my thesis would have looked completely different, and most surely would have taken me a different type of effort and time to complete. I say this in a positive sense: my Twitter 'timeline' developed over time, and was the result of a both conscientious and serendipitous process of curation.
My timeline, comprised at present of 2000 accounts mostly by people in different parts of the world whom I have never met offline, became and is now a kind of open research community space, where continuous information about comics, books, libraries, publishing, journalism, digital media, academia, politics and related subjects is shared by an active network. Literally speaking, my Twitter timeline is 'distracting', but not in an essentially different manner in which one gets distracted in a well-stocked brick-and-mortar library: if you are a curious individual with several interconnected interests, one learns to develop self-discipline and rigour, building the skill of what I call 'internal curation', or the art of managing a lot of different yet related information in an organised manner.
The people and organisations I have followed on Twitter for the last two years provided an open window to the relevance of my topic outside the academic walls. PhD research, even in the 21st century, is still highly medieval, demanding a monkish lifestyle, away from the madding crowds and the demands of the so-called 'real' world. In practice this is never completely thus, but it is easy to spend weeks without talking to any other human being apart from the cashiers at the supermarket. In days in which universities are struggling to prove their social relevance, I believe it is important that academic research is actively engaged with the society at large, and though Twitter of course can be very endogamic and self-centred, a properly-curated timeline can be a brilliant method of reaching out, establishing dialogues with people outside one's immediate social or academic circle and receiving challenging and useful feedback.
Just as in comics scholarship there is the need to stop justifying why comics should be taken seriously, I believe there's come the point in which online social networking needs to be discussed in positive terms as well. I know many academics and students are concerned with the negative aspects of an active life on social networks (plagiarism, procrastination, working unpaid extra time, blurring of work and personal life, creation of back-channels where not everyone is included etc.), but I'd also like to see more testimonies of people like me who have had a positive academic research experience participating and creating social/research networks online.
As a PhD student one works for a long time on a single topic and document, and it is easy to fall into very low levels of confidence. "Why am I doing this?" "Who cares about it apart from me?" The responses I have received to my sharing links to my own and others' research work, and to my academic conferences live-tweeting has been incredibly helpful for me to keep the faith that what I do matters to others. The interaction with my timeline also gave me access to valuable direct and indirect sources of information, sometimes even before said sources had been officially published. I established contact with many of the authors and publishers whose work I was writing about, and hundreds of them replied to my online surveys in a question of minutes. An internship, presentations in conferences and invitations to write and co-author articles took place solely over Twitter.
So even though I am someone who happily and completely left Facebook in order to focus more on the 'here and now' (especially because having extended social networks in both sides of the planet means one needs to be on 24/7), I disagree with Angela Thomas-Jones's conclusion that "in the context of social networks, a digital death may be the most value-adding life experience of all" (Thomas-Jones 2010:130).
A curated, research-purpose Twitter timeline or network can be an amazingly rich source of information, feedback, inspiration, critique and positive work experiences in the offline world. Whereas it is clear that online networks impose certain discourses and practices, they still allow a great degree of customisation that can transform them from being an extra social and emotional weight to carry to becoming positive alternative research work spaces (which are "social" too!).
It is a very limited view to think of Twitter as a vehicle for casual social interaction with people we already know. If curated properly and if there is the honest will to share work, information and knowledge; to collaborate and interact beyond professional fears, envies and selfishness, a Twitter timeline can become a lively combination of seminar, workshop and library where academia is no longer preaching to the converted, and where academics can learn from those outside their inner circles. The possibilities are too good not to be explored. For me, they're certainly more appealing than "a digital death."
Illustration by Robert Crumb.